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Port's Notebook: Depressingly necessarily legislation and failing the forecasters

columnist Rob Port

It's time for March Madness, and this annual tradition of sports fanaticism is the perfect context for something which happened in the North Dakota Legislature recently.

It's depressing this legislation was necessary.

This week the state House passed SB2249 which would prohibit students in public schools from participating in extracurricular activities if they are convicted of a felonious crime or the subject of a permanent protection order.

I was apprehensive about the legislation. This is a ticklish area of public policy that's not nearly so black and white as it might seem, and I would prefer leaving this matter up to coaches and parents and local school officials. But when I spoke with the bill's sponsor after the House vote I learned that the legislation was necessitated because the North Dakota High School Activities Association was refusing to do their jobs.

Sen. Nicole Poolman, a Republican of Bismarck, told me the bill's impetus came from a situation where a student was allowed to continue playing high school baseball despite being under indictment for sexual assault. Ultimately that player pleaded guilty to the charges, but only after the baseball season was completed.

Poolman told me that Superintendent Kirsten Baesler attempted to work with the NDHSAA to implement a policy to address this sort of situation but the organization refused.

So what we got as a result was Poolman's bill, which seeks to do the job to protect students that the NDHSAA (and parents, coaches, school administrators, etc.) should have been doing.

I'm afraid this situation illuminates a much wider problem in our society. Our rabid dedication to sports, particularly of the high school and collegiate variety, often overrides good common sense.

During the floor debate Rep. Tom Beadle (R-Fargo), an opponent of the legislation, said the NDHSAA was being "spineless."

He's right.

The Senate will have to approve the House amendment to this bill before it goes to Gov. Doug Burgum, but I'm told that shouldn't be an obstacle.

Failing the forecasters

University of North Dakota economics professor David Flynn told me during a recent interview on my radio show that if the people in charge of North Dakota's revenue forecasts were in one of his classes he'd fail them.

"This is an exercise in what not to do and how not to run a forecast process," he told me, disclosing that he bid on the state's forecasting contract.

It's not just that the forecasters have been unable to reliably predict the extent of the state's declining post-oil boom revenues, it's that they couldn't get it right during the oil boom either.

For instance, back in the 2011-2013 biennium revenue forecasters were off by 49 percent, or about $1.7 billion, in measuring the state's general fund revenues.

How can lawmakers make sound tax and spending policy when they don't trust the numbers those policies must be built on?

Whatever else comes of this legislative session, I hope we see some changes in the way the state predicts revenues.

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